In 1967, Vaughan’s first band, The Chantones, played an outdoor show at Robert E. Lee Park in Dallas and began to advance beyond school dances and private parties. During the summer of 1970, after falling into a barrel of grease while working for a fast food restaurant, Vaughan quit his job, formed his first relatively long-lasting band, Blackbird, and devoted his working life to music.
In 1971, Vaughan made his first studio recording, sitting in with a high school band called A Cast of Thousands for a compilation album named A New Hi. The two songs that were on the album showcased Vaughan's early burgeoning talent. During Christmas vacation, he dropped out of high school and moved to Austin, Texas with Blackbird. Their home base was a nightclub on the outskirts of town called the Soap Creek Saloon. In late 1972, he joined a rock band called Krackerjack, but quit a few months later when the lead singer decided that the band should wear theatrical makeup on stage.
In March 1973, Marc Benno added Vaughan to his band the Nightcrawlers, which was recording an album in Hollywood for A&M Records. The recording featured Doyle Bramhall on the drums, along with the beginning of a songwriting partnership with Vaughan. The album was not released, however, and the band traveled back to Texas. A year later, he found a battered 1963 Fender Stratocaster at a music store in Austin. It would remain as his favorite guitar for the rest of his life.
In late December 1974, Vaughan joined a popular Austin band Paul Ray & the Cobras, averaging approximately five shows a week. The Cobras released a record and won "Band of the Year" in an Austin music poll. Three years later, Vaughan left the Cobras and formed Triple Threat Revue with vocalist Lou Ann Barton, W.C. Clark on bass guitar, Mike Kindred on keyboards, and Fredde "Pharoah" Walden on drums. Later, Jackie Newhouse replaced W.C. Clark on bass and Chris Layton replaced Walden on drums. Vaughan and Lou Ann renamed the band Double Trouble, though Barton left in 1980 to sing for Roomful of Blues. On December 23, 1979, Vaughan and Lenora "Lenny" Bailey were married between sets at the Rome Inn nightclub in Austin.
Tommy Shannon, the former bassist in Krackerjack, replaced Jackie Newhouse in 1981. In July, the band played a music festival in Manor, Texas and a videotape of the performance was given to Rolling Stones drummer, Charlie Watts. Double Trouble then played a private party for The Rolling Stones at New York's Danceteria nightclub. On July 17, 1982, Vaughan and Double Trouble played the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, the first unsigned act to perform at the event. A few in the audience started booing the loud band throughout their performance since the event was predominately acoustical music. Vaughan later met David Bowie and jammed with Jackson Browne after the show, during an after party which lasted for hours into the morning.
Bowie asked Vaughan to play lead guitar on his new album Let's Dance. The album became Bowie's best-selling album of his career. Bowie also invited Vaughan to go on his Serious Moonlight Tour. During the rehearsal period, Vaughan decided to attend the funeral of Muddy Waters and, thus, could not be found for 5 days. When David Bowie expressed to Stevie that he wanted him to come down a flight of stairs with a liitle dance routine while playing his guitar, Stevie realized that this was not his gig. He was not a "pop" artist and refused to rehearse dance numbers like one, soon after he quit the tour with David Bowie, and went back to focus on his music and career with Double Trouble.
Browne offered Vaughan time in his recording studio in Los Angeles free of charge, and the band accepted the offer in November 1982. In the spring of the following year, music producer John Hammond heard a tape of the band's Montreux performance, and got the band a recording contract with Epic Records. Hammond is credited with discovering Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, among others. On June 13, 1983, the recordings in Browne's studio morphed into Texas Flood, Vaughan and Double Trouble's debut album, and was released to glowing reviews, selling over half a million units. Along with making an appearance on Austin City Limits, readers of Guitar Player magazine voted Vaughan as "Best New Talent" and "Best Electric Blues Guitar Player", with Texas Flood as "Best Guitar Album".
On May 15, 1984, Couldn't Stand the Weather was released and hit number 31 on the Billboard charts. In October 1984, Vaughan and Double Trouble performed at Carnegie Hall. To celebrate his thirtieth birthday, Vaughan brought along an all-star supporting band, including Dr. John on keyboards and his brother, Jimmie, on guitar, who wore custom tailored velvet mariachi suits. His wife and parents flew in from Texas to share in his triumph. In November 1984, Vaughan won "Entertainer of the Year" and "Instrumentalist of the Year" at the National Blues Awards in Memphis, Tennessee.
On September 30, 1985, the band's third album, Soul to Soul, was released, featuring new band member, Reese Wynans, on keyboards. It became their third gold album and went to number 34 on the Billboard charts. In July 1986, the band recorded shows in Austin and Dallas for their fourth album, Live Alive. On August 27, 1986, Vaughan's father, Big Jim Vaughan, died of Parkinson's disease. In late September 1986, Vaughan collapsed in Ludwigshafen, Germany from years of substance abuse, and he would later join Alcoholics Anonymous.
Vaughan struggled through two more concerts, though the last thirteen dates on the tour were canceled while Vaughan was admitted to a hospital in London. He emerged clean and sober in Atlanta, Georgia. Tommy Shannon also came out clean and sober while in Austin. Live Alive was released on November 15, 1986.
In the spring of 1987, MTV broadcast the band’s show in Daytona Beach, Florida as part of its spring break coverage. Vaughan also appeared in the movie Back to the Beach, performing "Pipeline" with Dick Dale. He also appeared on B.B. King’s Cinemax television special with Eric Clapton, Albert King, Phil Collins, Gladys Knight, Paul Butterfield, Chaka Khan, and Billy Ocean. Later that year, Vaughan filed for divorce from Lenny.
In 1988, Vaughan appeared with Stevie Wonder on an MTV special called Characters. Double Trouble also headlined a concert at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The show, featuring jams with Katie Webster, Albert Collins, and B.B. King, was filmed for a Showtime special called Coast to Coast. Vaughan's divorce from Lenny was finalized toward the end of the year.
On January 23, 1989, the band performed at an inauguration party in Washington, D.C. for George H. W. Bush. The band's fifth album, In Step, was released in June, and went on to win a Grammy Award for "Best Contemporary Blues Recording".
In the spring of 1990, Vaughan and his brother recorded an album together, one that would feature the music they had grown up with. They recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis and were produced by Nile Rodgers. The brothers agreed to name it Family Style. That summer, Vaughan and Double Trouble went on tour with British soul singer Joe Cocker, touring places like Alaska and the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival.
To complete the summer portion of the "In Step" tour, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble played two shows on August 25 and 26 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, WI, while on tour with Eric Clapton.
For travel to the next venue, the tour manager reserved four helicopters to circumvent congested highway traffic. In very dense fog, the helicopters, not certified for flight under instrument flight rules (IFR) lifted off at 12:40 A.M. Just past the lift-off zone was a 300-foot hill. Vaughan's helicopter pilot was unfamiliar with the area, and did not climb to sufficient altitude immediately after take-off. Vaughan's helicopter crashed into the hill.
According to the findings as reported by the National Transportation Safety Board, the cause of the accident was determined to be inadequate planning by the pilot, and failure to attain sufficient altitude to clear an obstacle. Fog and haze, as well as the rising terrain were listed as contributing factors. All occupants including Vaughan, the pilot and three members of Eric Clapton's travel group were killed on impact.
On August 31, 1990, funeral services were held for Vaughan at Laurel Land Memorial Park in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas. Brother Jimmie, mother Martha, and girlfriend Janna were in attendance. Among the mourners were Stevie Wonder, Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Nile Rodgers.
The 1991 album The Sky Is Crying was the first of several posthumous Vaughan releases to achieve chart success. Jimmie Vaughan later co-wrote and recorded a song in tribute to his brother and other deceased blues guitarists, titled "Six Strings Down". Bonnie Raitt's 1991 album Luck of the Draw was dedicated to him. Many other artists recorded songs in remembrance of Vaughan, including Eric Johnson, Tommy Emmanuel (the song Stevie's Blues), Buddy Guy and Steve Vai ("Jibboom" on the album The Ultra Zone, 1999) and guitarist Wayne Perkins ("Big Stratocaster", from the album Rambling Heart). Stevie Wonder included a song on his 1995 live album Natural Wonder titled "Stevie Ray Blues". On the album, Wonder refers to the song as "Stevie Ray Vaughan Blues".
Musicians such as John Mayer, Robert Randolph, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Colin James, Jonny Lang, Los Lonely Boys, Mike McCready, Eric Johnson, John Petrucci, and Doyle Bramhall II have cited Vaughan as an influence.
In 1991, Texas governor Ann Richards proclaimed October 3, Vaughan's birthday, to be "Stevie Ray Vaughan Day." An annual motorcycle ride and concert in Central Texas benefits the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Scholarship Fund.
In 1992, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation released the Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster, which Vaughan had helped design. As of 2007, the model is still in production. In 2004, Fender also released a limited edition exact replica of "Number One". The last guitar that Vaughan played before his death is on display in the Hard Rock Cafe in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. During that same year, Vaughan's name is mentioned in Stephen King's You Know They Got a Hell of a Band, a short story about a town populated by late music legends.
In 1994, the city of Austin erected the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Statue at Auditorium Shores on Lady Bird Lake, the site of a number of Vaughan's concerts. It has become one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.
In 2000, Stevie Ray Vaughan was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Stevie Ray Vaughan became eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
In November 2007, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation released a second tribute to Vaughan, an exact replica of his second beloved guitar: Lenny. This guitar was given to him by his wife Lenora ("Lenny") on his 26th birthday and Vaughan was very fond of it. According to Fender, the original Lenny was a 1965 Strat that he saw in the window of a pawn shop that he was unable to afford. The guitar is sold with a strap, a case with Vaughan's name embroidered in the fabric lining, a number of brochures and memorabilia and a leather bound certificate of authenticity.
In 2008, residents voted to rename Dallas' Industrial Boulevard, with Vaughan's name being one of the finalists alongside Stanley Marcus, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Cesar Chavez.
Vaughan's blues style was influenced by many blues guitarists. Foremost among them were Albert King, Otis Rush, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix. He was also strongly influenced by early blues-rock guitarist Lonnie Mack, who, according to Vaughan, "really taught me to play guitar from the heart", Vaughan, who had idolized Mack since childhood, produced and played on Mack's 1985 Alligator Records album Strike Like Lightning and covered "Wham!", which was written by Mack, among others. Vaughan's older brother Jimmie Vaughan has stated that Johnny "Guitar" Watson was the guitarist he and Vaughan studied the most. Vaughan also cited his brother as an influence.
Vaughan's sound and playing style, which often incorporated simultaneous lead and rhythm parts, drew comparisons to Hendrix. Vaughan covered several Hendrix tunes on his studio albums and in performance, such as "Little Wing," "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," and "Third Stone from the Sun." He was also heavily influenced by Freddie King, another Texas bluesman, mainly in the use of tone and attack; King's heavy vibrato can clearly be heard in Vaughan's playing. Another stylistic influence was Albert Collins. Vaughan also took considerable influence from jazz guitarists such as Kenny Burrell.
His main guitar was a beat-up 1963 Fender Stratocaster he dubbed Number One. He always referred to Number One as a '59. "1962" was stamped on the neck and written in the body cavity. On the back of the pickups, "1959" was written on the back. The fretboard was a "veneer" board (curved on the underside), though all of Stevie's other rosewood-board guitars were slab-boards (flat on the underside).
All of his other main guitars were vintage Strats or Strat-style guitars with the exception of a Hamiltone custom with "Stevie Ray Vaughan" inlay in the fretboard.
His string gauges, high to low, were usually .013, .015, .019, .028, .038, .058. Sometimes he'd use a slightly lighter high E string, like a .012 or .011. He always tuned down one half step.
Picks were always Fender Mediums, played on the side, round edge.
Stevie used a combination of amps, all running at the same time.
- Two "Blackface" Fender Super Reverbs
- 150-watt Dumble Steel String Singer with a 4x12 Dumble bottom
- 200-watt Marshall Major head with a 4x12 Dumble bottom
- Two "Blackface" Fender Vibroverb amplifiers (numbers five and six off production line), with one 15" speaker, used to power a Leslie-type Fender Vibratone cabinet with a rotating speaker inside.
His amps were all upgraded to Electro-Voice speakers.
He always used an Ibanez Tube Screamer, starting with the original first-issue 808, followed by the TS-9 and then the TS-10 Classic. Vintage '60s Vox wah-wahs, Vintage Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, '60's Tycobrahe Octavia.